Harmful Effects of Prolonged Isolated Confinement

Terry Kupers is a practicing psychiatrist, an expert on long-term isolated prison confinement, author of numerous articles on the subject as well as his book titled, “Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars and What We Must Do About It.” He’s also a frequent expert witness in related cases, serves as a consultant, and is currently Institute Professor in the Graduate School of Psychology at Wright Institute, Berkeley, CA. More on his work below.

Social scientists have studied the effects for years, social psychologist Hans Toch coining the term “isolation panic” to describe symptoms he observed in men he interviewed, including panic, rage, a sense of total loss of control, emotional breakdown, regressive behavior, and self-mutiliation. He distinguished between difficult but tolerable incarceration and intolerable long-term isolation.

An October 14, 2007 Scott Pelley’s 60 Minutes report called Supermax prisons “A Clean Version of Hell,” referring to the only federal one, the US Penitentiary Florence (ADMAX) Facility, Florence, Colorado, entirely a Supermax facility. He called it secretive, closed to the public, the media, and 60 Minutes only could approach the perimeter and be able to interview former warden Robert Hood, in charge from 2002-2005.

He called it “the Harvard of the system… except that (its) ivory towers may be easier to get into.” Allegedly, most inmates are too violent to be kept elsewhere, and over 40 (as of October 2007) were convicted “terrorists.” Based on this writer’s work, most, if not all, are innocent victims of police state justice.

Garrett Linderman was released. Pelly interviewed him and asked how it’s different from other lockups. “Your connections to the outside. Your family. Through phone calls, visits, all those are pretty much stopped at the ADX. There’s no comparison. It breaks down the human spirit. It breaks down the human psyche. It breaks your mind. (It’s the) perfection of isolation, painted pretty.” (They) perfected it there.”

60 Minutes learned of an even higher confinement level inside, sort of an “ultramax” group of cells with virtually no human contact, not even with guards, housing only two prisoners considered so dangerous they’re in “Range 13.” One is Tommy Silverstein who killed a prison guard. The other is alleged World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef.

According to Hood, Yousef is there because “He has that Charlie Manson look. He just has the eyes. He has some charisma about him. He’s in uniform. But you know that there’s a powerful person that you’re looking at.”

Other prominent Supermax prisoners include unabomber Ted Kaczynski; Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh (before his execution) and Terry Nichols; Robert Hanssen, the FBI supervisor turned Soviet spy; Eric Rudolph, the Olympic Park bomber, alleged Al Qaeda terrorists who bombed US African embassies, and mob informant Sammy “The Bull” Gravano.

Perhaps heading there are the Fort Hood shooter, and alleged 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and his four co-conspirators, now at Guantanamo. They’ll likely be tried in rigged military tribunals with no right of appeal, are already pre-judged guilty, face certain convictions and the death penalty, followed by isolated confinement until executed — even though no evidence substantiates their guilt.

So-called “terrorists” are denied due process and judicial fairness. Charges against them are bogus. The rule of law is undermined. Secret evidence is unavailable to the defense. Extremist judges allow it. Major media reports are viciously biased, and juries are intimidated to convict.


The US Department of Justice (DOJ) National Institute of Corrections calls the term “supermax” the most common one to describe “special housing unit(s), maxi-maxi, maximum control facilit(ies), secured housing unit(s), intensive management unit(s), and administrative maximum penitentiar(ies).” It describes them as “a highly restrictive, high-custody housing unit within a secure facility… that isolates inmates from the general prison population and from each other due to grievous crimes, repetitive assaultive or violent institutional behavior, the threat of escape or actual escape from high-custody facility(s), or inciting or threatening to incite disturbances in a correctional institution.”

In a 1999 report titled, “Supermax Prisons: Overview and General Considerations,” the DOJ said although “concentration, dispersal, and isolation are not new, the development of ‘supermax’ prisons is a relatively recent trend.” Prisons always had “prisons within the prison” for their worst inmates (usually called administrative segregation), and most states operate one or more facilities for their “most threatening inmates.” Florence, CO is the sole federal one and 100% Supermax.

Other definitions describes “control-unit” prisons, or units within prisons providing the most secure levels of custody for the “worst of the worst” criminals and those threatening national security. They’re maximum security facilities or prison wings in which inmates are held in long-term solitary confinement under constant surveillance by closed-circuit TV.

Alcatraz was the prototype until it closed in 1963. In 1861, it was used for civil war prisoners. In 1867, a brick jailhouse was built, and in 1868, it was officially designated a long-term detention facility for military prisoners. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, it housed civilian prisoners, but remained a military facility until 1933 when it was transferred to the Bureau of Prisons.

Supermax facilities evolved from a “get tough on crime” philosophy, keeping hardened offenders separate from the rest, the greater prison population safer, and the public also because they’re “escape-proof.” In addition, they provide high-paying jobs in isolated areas that would have far fewer ones otherwise. Over the last two decades, nearly 60 facilities were built in over 40 states, currently housing over 20,000 inmates. They represent a huge investment because they’re expensive to build and operate, two to three times more than a conventional prison.

They have high-tech security features. Walls, floors, ceilings and doors are built out of reinforced materials. Complex electronic systems minimize officer-inmate contact. Moving inmates requires multiple officers. They’re confined in windowless single cells about 7 by 12 feet for up to 23 hours a day, with a shower and concrete bed. The staff-to-prisoner ratio is much higher than in conventional prisons. Inmates have few if any programs. Very little constructive activity is offered on a daily basis. Few visits are allowed, though almost no contact ones.

Overall, there’s very little human contact. Most inmates are incarcerated for life but other sentences are determinate. No federal entry or release standard is observed. Some states use Supermax facilities for different reasons, including when a shortage of segregation beds exist elsewhere.

Money spent on them reduces amounts for other facilities. Long-term isolation contributes to anti-social behavior and mental illness, so released inmates may be violent and unemployable. Yet proponents say they’re the most effective way to deal with dangerous offenders. Opponents believe they do more harm than good, and the expense compounds the problem.

They’re designed for society’s most incorrigible (or ones authorities want to punish for political or other reasons) on the notion that solitary confinement, sensory deprivation, and punitive treatment will change behavior, only for the worst according to experts.

The facilities are extremely harsh. They crush the human spirit, mind and body through isolation and cruelty. Physical abuse and extreme deprivation are common, inflicted as punishment. Inmate contact with staff is restricted and none allowed with other prisoners. They’re confined in windowless cells 23 hours a day, have no work, social contact, education, recreation, rehabilitation or personal privacy. Nearly everything is delivered — food, medical supplies and other materials. Outside their cells, they’re escorted by 4-man teams, painfully handcuffed and shackled.

Over time it causes severe anxiety; panic attacks; lethargy; insomnia, nightmares; dizziness; irrational anger, at times uncontrollable; confusion; social withdrawal; memory loss; appetite loss; delusions and hallucinations; mutilations; profound despair and hopelessness; suicidal thoughts; paranoia; and, for many, a totally dysfunctional state and inability ever to live normally outside of confinement.

Prisoner anecdotes describe the experience:

— “People come in here with a few problems and will leave sociopaths”;

— You’re like a “caged animal. I’ve seen people just crack and either scream for hours on end or cry.”

— Isolation “creates monsters (who) want revenge on society.”

— We “have a sense of hopelessness. Plus my anger (is) a silent rage… I am beginning to really hate people.”

— “They… try to break a person down mentally (and) mental abuse leaves no evidence behind (like) physical abuse.”

— Others say isolation is like being buried alive and living in a tomb.

When long-term, it often causes irreversible psychological trauma and harm, a condition no society should inflict on anyone, nor should lawmakers allow it.

That’s why forced isolation violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Torture Convention, and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. In 1995, the UN Human Rights Committee called long-term prison isolation incompatible with international standards, and in 1996, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment agreed.

Kupers on “How to Create Madness in Prisons”

Isolating inmates in windowless cells 23 hours a day makes it easy. Even the strongest-willed can break. Try it in a windowless room for 24 hours with enough food and water for one day. Imagine the desperation to get out. Then imagine it for many years or life.

Mental asylum can have the same effect, Kuper using this example as evidence:

  • family members confine their son in one;
  • he loudly protests his sanity and his parents for wanting him confined;
  • the psychiatric evaluation misinterprets his anger as illness;
  • after being involuntarily confined, his protests become louder and more desperate;
  • staff members say its more evidence of illness, place him in a locked ward, and deprive him of ways to express himself;
  • his greater anger convinces staff he’s crazy; they put him in isolation with no clothes, pens or writing materials;
  • even more desperate, he smears feces on the wall and writes messages with his finger to express himself.

Kuper cites this to show the effects of institutionalized isolation. In fact, he says: “In the USA, there are more people suffering from serious mental illness in the jails and prisons than there are in psychiatric hospitals. And the bizarre scenarios enacted in correctional settings today can make the ‘back wards’ of 1940’s asylums look tame in comparison.”

Besides the destructive effects of Supermax isolation, imagine the greater harm when a “disturbed/disruptive prisoner winds up in some form of punitive segregation, typically in a supermaximum security unit where he remains isolated and idle in his cell nearly 24 hours a day.”

It produces psychiatric symptoms in even healthy prisoners because of feelings of being overwhelmed. As a result:

“The walls may seem to be moving in on him…. He may begin to suffer from panic attacks wherein he cannot breathe and he thinks his heart is beating so fast he is going to die.”

They can’t focus on tasks, sleep, and fear their anxiety will boil over into rage. Many isolated prisoners say they can’t contain it and fear greater punishment will result.

“Eventually, and often rather quickly, a prisoner’s psychiatric condition deteriorates (to) where he inexplicably refuses to return his food tray, cuts himself or pastes paper over the small window in his solid metal door, causing security staff to trigger an emergency ‘take-down’ or ‘cell extraction.’ ”

At supermaximum security prisons, it happens as often as 10 times a week because total isolation breaks the human spirit and causes bizarre behavior. Madness is easy to create under these conditions:

— overcrowd prisons and impose long sentences;
— dismantle rehabilitation and education programs;
— create forced idleness;
— some prisoners already are mentally ill;
— obstruct or restrict visitations and other human contact;
— punish violence and psychosis by total isolation;
— ignore prison traumas like rape;
— call mental disorder “malingering” and out-of-control prisoners “psychopaths;”
— deny them treatment; and
— isolate them in supermaximum security units.

The effect of prison life is rising recidivism and “a new breed of incorrigible criminals and ‘superpredators’. One had only to tour a prison to understand how violence and madness were bred by the crowding.” Then consider the effects of prolonged isolated confinement and the violence and madness it produces.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons estimates at least 283,000 inmates have significant emotional problems and need treatment. In prison, they don’t get it. Instead, they’re confined to cells and given psychiatric medications.

Prison violence is a major problem. Supermax confinement was designed to limit it. “There is ample evidence that long-term cell-confinement with almost no social interactions and no meaningful activities has very destructive psychological effects,” including mental disorders, violence, and high suicide rates.

Long-term isolation builds “uncontrollable rage…. A disproportionate number of prisoners with serious mental illness wind up in punitive segregation.” The effect is “to exacerbate the general level of pandemonium.” Frustrated staff become more insensitive, lose their tempers, and take it out on inmates. “The bottom line is that we seem to have reproduced some of the worst aspects of an earlier epoch’s snake pit mental asylums in the isolation units of our modern prisons.”

Prison mismanagement is the cause, using Supermax facilities punitively, not for rehabilitation, and in conventional institutions, creating harmful overcrowding that produces violence and harsher punishments. “We need to stop blaming the victim’s innate ‘badness’ for failed” prison policies.

The Shame of America’s Prison System

America has the largest prison population in the world, greater than China with four times as many people, and 22% of all those incarcerated globally. At 738 in 2006, it has the highest rate per 100,000. Most Western European nations have under 100. Japan has 62. Canada 107. Bolivia under Evo Morales 83, and Venezuela under Hugo Chavez 74.

Justice Department Bureau of Justice Statistics show over 2.4 million imprisoned Americans at year-end 2008. They include inmates in federal and state facilities, local jails, Indian, juvenile, and military ones, US territories, and numbers held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In addition, another 7.3 million are under correctional supervision, and 13 million pass through US jails annually. Half of them are for non-violent offenses. Half of those are drug-related. In 1980, 40,000 drug offenders were in prison. Today, it’s over 500,000, the result of the “war on drugs,” that’s part of the war on civil liberties.

Since 1970, the prison population exploded from under 300,000 to eight times that number now. In the December 1998 Atlantic, Eric Schlosser called it “The Prison-Industrial Complex,” a recent phenomenon with about 1,000 new prisons and jails built in the 1980s and 90s, and the trend continues in the new millennium, not because of more crime, because of getting “tough” on it against more people getting longer sentences under harsher conditions.

Marc Mauer, author of Race to Incarcerate, says America locks up people at five to eight times the rate of other industrialized nations, including many who shouldn’t be there in the first place. Nearly two-thirds are blacks and Latinos. The vast majority are poor and disadvantaged. One in three black males and one in six Latino males will be imprisoned at some point in their lives. Black males are imprisoned at nine times the rate for whites, and in some states up to 26 times. Penalties include “mandatory minimums, one size fits all (and) three strikes and you’re out.”

Yet from 1970-1994, violent crime rates were stable, and the overall rate fell. The murder rate is the lowest since 1966, and from 1980-2000 it dropped 43%. It costs as much or more to imprison someone as send them to college and for older inmates three times as much. Higher incarceration rates for longer periods is unrelated to the crime rate. The prison-industrial complex is one of America’s biggest growth industries, exceeding $60 billion annually, and private security adds another $100 billion. Crime fighters and prisoners comprise around 4% of the workforce.

Schlosser called America’s prison-industrial complex: “not only a set of interest groups and institutions. It is also a state of mind. The lure of big money is corrupting the nation’s criminal-justice system, replacing notions of public service with a drive for higher profits.”

It borders on the extreme, defiles the rule of law and core democratic notions, exploits people as commodities, uses incarcerations for profit, a way to create jobs, punish not rehabilitate, crush the human spirit, lets politicians look tough and get elected, and according to former New York State legislator, Daniel Feldman: “When legislators cry ‘Lock ’em up!,’ they mean (do it) in my district.”

America has more prisoners than farmers. In 2001, writer Vince Beiser in Mother Jones asked, “How did the Land of the Free become the world’s leading jailer?” Zen Buddhist priest Kobutsu Shindo Kevin C. Malone calls America’s prison industrial complex an “Investment in Slavery,” permitted under the 13th Amendment, Section 1 stating: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The result is a burgeoning prison population and building boom to accommodate it, rural communities begging for them, because of declines in farming, mining, manufacturing, corporate downsizing, a shift to low-paying service jobs, and a troubled economy. Besides Wall Street bailouts, foreign wars, and a growing national security apparatus, what better economic stimulus than to lock up poor blacks and Latinos, Muslims called terrorists, then target political dissidents; human, civil and anti-war activists; and courageous opponents of Washington and corporate malfeasance.

As well-known Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff used to say about America, “What a country!” He also said in Soviet Russia, the “government control(led) corporations. In America, corporations control the government,” and profiteering prison-industrial complex ones have plenty of say. Only in America.

Stephen Lendman wrote How Wall Street Fleeces America: Privatized Banking, Government Collusion and Class War. Contact him at: lendmanstephen@sbcglobal.net. Also visit his blog site and listen to The Global Research News Hour on RepublicBroadcasting.org Mondays from 11AM-1PM US Central time for cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests. All programs are archived for easy listening. Read other articles by Stephen.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. jon s said on April 21st, 2010 at 10:52am #

    Right. Appeal to the Hamas to release Gilad Shalit! (and until they do , to recognize his rights as a POW)

  2. Don Hawkins said on April 21st, 2010 at 1:19pm #

    Stephen what you just wrote could just as easily be applied to the World we all live in here in the States.

    Side effect’s of Capitalism

    Over time it causes severe anxiety; panic attacks; lethargy; insomnia, nightmares; dizziness; irrational anger, at times uncontrollable; confusion; social withdrawal; memory loss; appetite loss; delusions and hallucinations; mutilations; profound despair and hopelessness; suicidal thoughts; paranoia; and, for many, a totally dysfunctional state and inability ever to live normally outside of confinement.

    Granted you have to read between the lines a little but not much. Of course we have pill’s for all of this effect and cause.

  3. r jackowski said on April 21st, 2010 at 2:32pm #

    Good article on an important topic. The entire prison system is a disgrace. In Vermont recently a young woman prisoner with a minor offense was denied her medicine. She died.

    The prison system is just a symptom of a very dysfunctional society. In some very reputable day care centers babies are kept in those plastic baby carriers and have almost no human contact. In nursing homes for the elderly most patients are isolated and rarely have any interaction.

    Capitalism makes all of us dispensable.

  4. mary said on April 22nd, 2010 at 7:15am #

    jon s never gives up. Stephen Lendman was writing about US prisons.

    Anyway perhaps Gilad is getting to like the Muslim way of life and I am sure that he has not been treated like Moatasem or Basel, two Palestinian 16 year old boys, described here.


  5. Josie Michel-Bruening said on April 22nd, 2010 at 8:44am #

    Thank you very much, dear Stephen Lendman, for this educating article.
    Did you meet one of the “Cuban Five”, Antonio Guerrero, in Florence, Colorado, too?
    He is innocent, a proved model prisoner, he originally should serve there for a life term + 10 years, on Oct. 13 it was reduced to 28 years. However, he is innocent as his comrades are in other high-securty prisons.
    Please, visit: http://www.thecuban5.org/ and www-freethefive.org .
    All the Five of them were repeatedly held in arbitrary isolation confinement.
    At first for 17 months in Miami before their trial, then again in 2003 for the whole month of March. Only because of international protests incl. Amnesty International, they were released from it.
    During their transfer to their resentencings in Miami in last fall, three of them were held in isolation confinement again, and on their way back to their respective prisons again. Antonio had been held for 18 days in isolation confinment in Oklahoma.
    He and his comrades are model prisoners, never violating any rules.
    There are other cases, of course, all over the world like those, for instance in Germany during the 1970s.
    It is a preferred method to break the moral and attitude of political prisoners. Although psychologists have proved long ago that torture and isolation confinement are apart from that middle aged cruelty of no success referring the purpose.
    Moreover it is a violation of international law.
    Please, engage in the case of the Cuban Five too.
    Their only crime had been to observe exile Cuban terrorists and to warn the Cuban authorities before their planned attacks against Cuba having caused until 1999 3,478 dead and 2,099 invalid people. 170 of those attacks the Cuban Five could prevent, indeed unarmed.

  6. jon s said on April 22nd, 2010 at 10:27pm #

    Mary, are you trying to be sarcastic? Or do you really think that Gilad Shalit likes the religion professed by the people treating him so cruelly? And how could you compare his almost 4 years imprisonment with boys who were , according to your link, released after a few hours?
    Shalit is relevant to the article because of the cruel terms of his captivity.

  7. Mulga Mumblebrain said on April 22nd, 2010 at 11:38pm #

    mary, our little mate, jon, makes such a fuss over Shalit, the prisoner-of-war (and, who knows, perhaps a war criminal like so many other Israeli Death Forces personnel), because he is an adherent of that basic tenet of Zionism, as infamously articulated by Rabbi Kook the Elder. You know the one, the belief, the absolute conviction, that Jewish lives are infinitely more precious than those of non-Jews. That’s why jon can be totally indifferent to the fate of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners of Zionazism, who we know are routinely tortured, but whinges about Shalit, about whom there is not a scintilla of evidence that he has been mistreated (although, of course,once released he will commence bleating of his vile treatment by his evil captors). I hope Shalit is released, and the thousands of Palestinians, but the obstacle to that happy result is the vile, racist and fascist Zionist regime that jon is such a relentless apologist for.

  8. bozh said on April 23rd, 2010 at 9:03am #

    The strongest god ever, the god 2, is by far more powerful and thus just, wise, fair, etc., than god 1 and god 3.
    Eat ur hearts out god 1 and god 3. For now! Let’s face it! This means that justice 2, truth 2, laws 2 wld forever prevail unless s’mwhen-s’mhow god 3 evens the match.
    My advice to religion 3 and god 3 to is just be not only with religion 2 but of it, as well. For god 2 thru bush has clearly spoken: be with us or against us.
    And most adherents of religion 3 are now with and of US.
    By the way, baal, the god 0, is already dead; so i didn’t mention her.
    I don’t dare to say this to my wife, tho; she’s got her own knowledge, the knowledge-god oo1%; similar to many other people’s!